Transcript: Drugs, Depression & Chimpanzees, Nov 22 2006

Are antidepressants good for a boost if you're already healthy? Depressed chimps study. The use of drugs.

Drugs, Depression & Chimpanzees, November 22 2006

This from CNN. I find this fascinating. Welcome back, by the way, 34 minutes past the hour, Thom Hartmann radio program, the place for your minimum daily adult requirement of sanity. And speaking of such, this CNN article. The headline, it's by Caleb Hellerman, the headline: "Are antidepressants good for a boost if you're already healthy?" and it's about this trend that's going on in the United States of people taking antidepressants. One in 10 million Americans - excuse me - 10 million Americans, that's about one out of ten American, it's about 10% of the workforce. I don't know if it's the workforce that's actually taking it, though. We have about 150 million people in the American work force. Let's say just as a percentage of the population. That would be about, what, 3.5% of the population - 3 million people, 300 million people?

Anyhow, 10 million Americans take an antidepressant daily. Now, keep in mind, a lot of these drugs are extremely, they don't use the word addictive - they might use the word habituating or difficult to quit or whatever, I mean they dance around this - but I've known several people who have started taking particularly the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor drugs, the SSRI drugs, the category of Prozac for example, you know, just that general category of drugs and then after a few months they've tried to stop and experience just absolute black depression and found that it's harder to stop those drugs than it to stop, for example, smoking. And yet they're prescribed on a 'here, have one every day' basis which is not unlike the way that Valium was prescribed back in the 1960s, which led to Jacqueline Susann's book 'Valley of the Dolls" about these housewives, well not just housewives, about these mostly young women who were taking Valium, you know, housewife heroin it used to be referred to as, and stimulants - speed, and we've got a lot of people taking speed too, in the form of Ritalin and Adderall and Dexedrine and all the drugs for ADHD. You know, adult ADD is the big new thing.

But it starts out the story, "Troy Dayton…" this fellow, you know, 29-year-old political lobbyist, "pops a little white pill every morning. He's one of the 10 million Americans taking a daily antidepressant. But in his case, he says he was never depressed in the first place.

This 29-year-old political lobbyist is one of the happiest people you'll ever meet. He's constantly smiling, and says he wakes up belly-laughing two or three times a week. Dayton says he's an optimist by nature, and that his daily dose of Wellbutrin makes him feel even better.

"Wellbutrin makes me feel great," Dayton told CNN. "Wellbutrin made me feel clear-headed, much more able to focus. I don't think it means that I don't ever experience any sadness, but I think it makes me experience sadness in a very healthy way."

Dayton says a doctor first prescribed Wellbutrin for him 2 1/2 years ago, as an aid to quit smoking. "

Now, this is a drug that increases the brain level of dopamine and dopamine is a chemical that's associated with excitement and pleasure and new experience, novelty. So every dreadful boring day suddenly seems like a fascinating new interesting day. I'm not quoting CNN now; this is my own commentary. And this is a growing trend across America; people taking these antidepressants.

"Dayton is unrepentant about his drug use", reports CNN. " 'If we have the ability to have something better, then why not?' he asks. 'However someone can sustain a certain level of happiness without hurting someone else, should be celebrated and not questioned'. "

This raises two really interesting issues. I remember ten years ago or so there was a study, and whenever I tell this story on the radio people, you know, phone in or send me emails asking for a copy of it. I'm sorry; I don't know where it is right now. I do quote it in one of my books though, and I think the book is "ADD Success Stories".

But there was a study that was done that was played once on public television back a decade or more ago about a scientist anthropologist who was working in Africa with primates in the jungle, my recollection is it was Kenya or Tanzania, and this was kind of in the shadow of or in the echo of Dian Fossey. You know, the "Gorillas in the Mist" woman and, who was ultimately murdered by poachers. And Dian Fossey had noted that some sometimes gorillas seemed depressed.

This particular research was on chimps. Chimps form troops and they're very protective; they're very defensive of their own area and that kind of thing. and what they found was that if you look at a troop of chimps - a band or a tribe, it's called a troop - look at a troop of chimps and you'll discover that any given moment about the same percentage of chimps are clinically depressed as humans which is 3 to 5% more or less, depends on how you define depression, but if you're looking at the clear clinical depression symptoms of social disengagement, social withdrawal, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, hyper-vigilance, then that, it was there. They also found that, just like humans, the chimps take turns being depressed; in other words it's cyclical; it happens for a while and then it goes away and some other chimp happens to be depressed.

So the question was, 'what we do with these depressed chimps?' How will it change chimpanzee society if we take out the depressed ones? And so after observing this troop of chimps for a few months they shot the depressed ones with a tranquilizer gun so that they could take them out and put them in a cage or a zoo, or I don't know what they did with them, and then just continue to watch the troop to find out what's going to happen. And the guess was, hey, the depressed, you know, the bottom monkeys are gone - they're not monkeys, they are chimpanzees, I realize that for the primatologists among us, but, you know, it's nice shorthand - the bottom monkeys are gone so everybody else is going to, you know, party on, Garth!

Well, what they discovered was that within a year as they kept taking out the depressed chimps every time another one became depressed, within a year the entire troop was dead. Because, it turned out, that the depressed ones, because they socially disengaged, in other words they left the center of the troop and they moved out to the periphery; they were the ones who were sleeping in the trees on the edge, on the border, on the boundary of the community, because they were hyper-vigilant, because the smallest noise freaked them out and disturbed them, they were constantly worried and concerned; they were hyper-vigilant, because they weren't sleeping well and they were up half the night, because of that combination of things that we call depression they were the early warning system for the troop. They were the ones who noticed the leopard trying to sneak in. They were the ones who noticed the python coming down the tree. They were the ones who sounded the alarm. They were the first to scream, 'Look out! Look out!'

And the psychologist who wrote up the paper on this particular bit of research in her summary said - and I'm paraphrasing now from a ten year old memory but I think it's pretty close - said if we look at the depressed humans in history we find that they may have played the same early warning system that these chimpanzees do but for human society rather than chimp society; for the predators within human society. The depressives like Albert Camus, depressives like Franz Kafka. Did you ever read "The Prisoner", the Kafka short story? Depressives like Ernest Hemingway who ultimately committed suicide as I think Kafka and Camus did [No - tuberculosis and car crash respectively - ed.] - you know, it's been a long time since I was reading the history of these guys or reading their work. It's been probably 30 years or so. But many of them did commit suicide ultimately.

But she said they were the ones who were out there saying to the rest of us, 'Look out, there's a social problem, there's a danger, we need to pay attention to this, look at this!' and that as a society if we try to suppress depression, at least universally, do we put ourselves at risk? Now, it's a really interesting question, I would submit that the individuals who are experiencing depression would be perfectly happy to have society lose them as an early warning system if they could have their lives back.

Winston Churchill, one of society's famous, one of history's famous depressives. He referred to his periodic depression, episodes of depression - and they were severe for him - he referred to depression as 'that black dog'.

Another famous depressive was Abraham Lincoln. He again, you know, this is well known, he would go into these periods of time where he was just intensely depressed. He was the early warning system for the society.

So, should we be going with soma? Should we go with Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World'? That's one half of the question that it raises.

The other half of the question that it raises is what about those societies like traditional Afghan society, for example, or the societies in South America; the mountain societies up in the mountains of Colombia, up in the mountains of Peru where people have been chewing coca leaf for 20,000 years routinely, or the traditional Afghan society where they've been smoking opium or chewing opium traditionally for thousands and thousands of years and kind of self medicating? Or the users of marijuana or the Native American tribes that use mescaline? Should this be appropriate? Maybe this is normal.

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